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Pilots of ex-military planes honor veterans through flight

It starts from a cockpit inside an old military trainee plane.

The plane shakes as the cockpit window is open, catching wind, waiting for air traffic control to give the go-ahead for takeoff.

But this is no ordinary liftoff because right next to this plane is another small
military trainee plane. Both take off simultaneously, in sync with each other’s
every move, using hand signals as a way of communication.

Now above ground, the pilots can see the vastness of what’s below. Yet, it’s the
people below who are looking up to figure out what is taking place: formation
flying with Arizona’s Falcon Warbirds.

These warbirds in Mesa consist of a retired Air Force General who was a fighter
pilot, a retired General Motors engineer, an airline pilot, a doctor, six
others, and their 10 military trainee planes. All with one goal—to take care of
veterans. They do so by taking flight.

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These pilots, through a non-profit group formed four years ago, conduct formation flights for veterans’ events in the community, along with “Missing Man
Flights.”

Since the flights can be dangerous, as they fly so close together, the group has a
briefing and debriefing before and after each flight, respectively.

Each briefing may be different, but each mission is the same – to honor veterans.
They fly for veteran ceremonies or memorials all across the state.

“We do them summer and winter, so if it’s 110-degrees we won’t turn down a veteran that needs to be buried and respected here in the Valley,” Stich said.

Each pilot owns a trainer aircraft that were used to train pilots from China,
Russia, and the U.S.

The planes are housed in an historic hangar at the Falcon Field Airport in Mesa,
Arizona. The hangar was used during World War II by the British military to
train its pilots. Now it’s used by this group of 10 pilots.

“We’re just a group of guys that put this together and it’s worked out dramatically well,” said Dick Stich, a retired U.S. Air Force general. “It’s what I do. It’s what I am. I just love what I do. I love the guys I work with and the guys
I fly with. The guys that are doing the formation flying are all good. They’re
all certified. We got to trust one another. We fly very close together and
we’re pretty good at it.”

Another pilot said it gives him a unique outlook.

“I enjoy being up in the sky and seeing the world from a different perspective,”
said Monte Montez, Falcon Warbirds Vice President who aims to encourages the
youth to look into aviation as a profession. “It gets in your blood. Aviation
gets in your blood. Once it gets in your blood, you got to go out and fly once
or twice, at least, a month.”

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Their main flight is “The Missing Man Flight,” where four planes fly and one tilts up
toward the sky in recognition and symbolism of a fallen veteran. Stich said the
military stopped doing them about 10 years ago.

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“When we do our Missing Man flyby’s at the National Cemetery, everybody comes apart,” Stich said.  “It is so dramatic. You just wouldn’t believe the impact it
has on the family and the friends that are there.”

The Falcon Warbirds did a Missing Man Flight in 2012 for Deidre Morhet’s late
husband, Jeff, who was an Army Ranger, and her 12-year-old son, Jack, who died
in a tragic plane accident. Her husband was training to fly with the Warbirds
at the time of the crash.

“It meant so much because it was almost like he was home,” Morhet said. “When that plane flew off and Jeff’s dad was in the plane when they did the formation
flying—I mean, everybody said it was just—it was amazing closure for us, as a
family, to know that he was missed.”

Stich said he's proud of doing these types of flights.

“Our guys are all the same way,” he said. “They’re so proud to be involved doing a close formation flyby for a funeral or just a gathering of veterans. It’s a big deal.” 

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Veterans and their families can also reach out to the group and ask them to fly
formation for veteran events.

The Falcon Warbirds welcome any family who wants to honor their beloved veteran with open arms – or wings.

It starts inside a cockpit. 

And it continues by taking off into the clouds.

Charlie Lapastora is a multimedia reporter based in Phoenix, Ariz.